788: John Muir, A Dream, A Waterfall, A Mountain Ash

788: John Muir, A Dream, A Waterfall, A Mountain Ash

788: John Muir, A Dream, A Waterfall, A Mountain Ash


I am Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

A long time ago, I was trying to learn to meditate. The one thing that worked, the thing that finally allowed me to be still and just breathe, was simply being physically exhausted. I could meditate best after a long hike up a hill on Moon Mountain or in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park where a long winding hill brought me to a meadow where for once my phone didn’t get a signal, and I could see across the other valley. There, I could imagine how mountains connect us, not divide us.

For a while then, exhausted, emptied of all effort, I could sit and practice metta or loving kindness meditation or mindfulness to, “sit and know you are sitting” as Joseph Goldstein says in his guided meditations. Then, I wondered if it was the meditation that seemed to be working or the just physical exhaustion? Or was it, which is so often true, the awe of the mountains themselves, the headwaters of Sonoma Creek, which after the winter rains is a rush of waterfalls and ripples. The sound of water even drowns out the sound of my all-too bullish brain ping-ponging from one problem to the next. If I listened close enough, the mountains seemed to be saying, “We are all doing our best with this life.”

Today’s poem, by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, is a poem that balances the worrisome long threads of our lives against the large wonder of mountains. The poem’s title also asks us to question who gets to name, or claim, nature at all.

John Muir, A Dream, A Waterfall, A Mountain Ash
by Robert Hass

I had been given two pieces of writing to read.
One was a description of my childhood kitchen
in which, beneath the calm and orderly prose, 
something was beating frantically against the walls
like a trapped bat. The other piece contained a small door
you could actually crawl through. It led to the ridge
of a canyon from which you could look down
into an orchard. I knew it was Canyon de Chelly,
knew Kit Carson and his scouts would be coming
to destroy the fruit trees which were neatly aligned
along irrigation ditches that the Spanish called aquecia.
Woke feeling nauseous—my wife’s soft breathing
beside me. Outside the immense Sierra dark and silence,
a sky still glittering with a strew of stars, a faint brightening
to the east. You’d think, past sixty or so, the unconscious 
would give you some respite. But here, it says,
is the little engine of dread and sorrow that runs your story.
And here, almost symmetrically, is the unspeakable cruelty
of the world. In an hour the market in Tahoma will open.
I can drive through the sugar pines. Get coffee,
get a paper. The plan today is to climb Ellis Peak
to see if we can’t find the clusters of golden berries 
on the mountain ash that we saw last year where the slope
of the trail flattens and the creek runs in a silver sheet
across slabs of granite and then flares into spumes
of white water that leap down the canyon
in what John Muir thought was joy or its earthly simulation.
A good walk, mostly uphill. We can wear ourselves out with it.

"John Muir, A Dream, A Waterfall, A Mountain Ash" from SUMMER SNOW by Robert Hass copyright © 2020 by Robert Hass. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.